This is the third sermon in this series where I've introduced you to some of my "teachers" in life, young people, delinquents in society's eyes. If you've been here both prior weeks you met Sandy and Tom and Jeff. Today I'm going to introduce you to Jamal, Dwayne, and Little Joe.
One of the most challenging places I've ever worked was as a chaplain in the Ohio Department of Youth Services, the last time being in the early `90's. My assignment was at Freedom Center, an intensive program for those who came into the system addicted to drugs or alcohol, or both. This was intended to be the last institutional step before they were released. At that time 40 young men were in residence at any given time, but of course it was ever-changing with some leaving each week and others coming in.
The treatment at the Center was based on the Alcoholics Anonymous proven 12-steps. The program is demanding. It requires a great deal of introspection as one finally has to admit that his addiction is so strong that, on his own strength, he is powerless to control its influence over his life.
Equally hard is coming to grips with the realization that one's problems are not something that can be blamed onto someone else. In the end a person has to take ownership for his own behavior. This was not easy for most of the boys I worked with. In fact most had perfected a convenient shift of blame that included parents, teachers, the police, or peers—most everyone else but themselves.
The staff knew full well that almost all of the kids there had come from extremely troubled backgrounds. Life had been rough. Many had been exploited in one way or another. Still, each had been presented with many choices in their life thus far. It was the decisions they made that brought them here and it would the decisions they'd soon make on the outside that would determine whether they would be free or locked up, perhaps even alive or dead.
It's easy to feel like a victim in life. These fellows certainly did. Yet, to some degree, we all feel that way a portion of the time. We look around and compare our lives with others and think, "Why do I have it so bad? Others seem to be doing well. Why not me?"
Perhaps that very human feeling lay behind the writing of our psalm today. The author confides that his faith was shaken, for everywhere he turned he saw evil prospering. He wonders out loud why there is so much injustice if life is under God's control.
"I saw that things go well for the wicked," he writes. "They do not suffer pain; they are strong and healthy. They do not suffer as other people do; they don't have the troubles that other have. And so they wear their pride like a necklace and violence like a robe; their hearts pour out evil and their minds are busy with wicked schemes.
"They laugh at other people and speak of evil things; they are proud and make plans to oppress others. They speak evil of God and give arrogant orders to everyone on earth, so that even God's people turn to them and eagerly believe whatever they say. They say, `God will not know; the Most High will not find out.' That is what the wicked are like. They have plenty and are always getting more."
Perhaps the psalmist begins by thinking, "What's wrong with me? Why don't I have it this good? What am I doing wrong?" Then he turns the blame from himself and asks what's wrong with God.
"Is it nothing that I have kept myself pure and have not committed sin? O God, you have made me suffer all day long...."
The writer struggles with that age-old question, "Why do evil people prosper while good people languish? Where's the blame to go?"
Surely we've wondered about the same question ourselves. You can't read the newspaper and not be struck by the seeming disparity in the way that things happen. A drug kingpin, for instance, lives a life of luxury while a caring soul is beset by all kinds of difficulties. This simply isn't the way that things should happen in a just world. All this is reminiscent as well of the struggles of Job to understand the inequities of the world.
Our fellows at Freedom Center may never have read the Book of Job, but they certainly would have identified with his questions. They were particularly bothered about why they had been caught for whatever landed them here while others still hung out on the street corners back home. They would tell me that they couldn't make any sense of the Bible, but when I would relate its stories to them in plain language they became eager to join in discussion. Sometimes the dialogue could get quite animated, as when we almost had a fight break out over different understandings of the Beatitudes.
Enter now Jamal, Dwayne, and Little Joe. They were typical of the fellows we would see there in our revolving, short-term population. Jamal was from the streets of Canton, Dwanye from a rural area of Southeast Ohio, and Little Joe from one of the "projects" in Cincinnati. All had been addicts in addition to other serious charges when they came into the care of Youth Services. All were very good at pointing the blame at others for their difficulties.
It was clear that the persons they looked up to were folks we would probably view as living on the margins of life: drug dealers, gang leaders, pimps, and in the case of Dwayne, a fellow he knew who made a good living from stealing equipment off construction sites. These three came from dysfunctional families, with addiction plaguing their parents as well.
The 12-step program begins with admitting first that I am powerless over the addiction and that my life is out of control, but it moves quickly to a belief that there is a Power—greater than ourselves—that can restore us. It is in turning ourselves over to that Power, which we call God, that allows us to find our way and to participate in the rebuilding of our lives.
Do you know how hard that is for a cocky kid to come to grips with his limitations? Teens can do most anything and they are invincible. They risk themselves in ways that make us shudder. Moreover, before your peers you never admit to weakness. So this was a hard program for the young men in our charge, but it would be even harder yet for them if they were released back to their home community no more ready to deal with problems and temptations than when they left.
Let me turn briefly now to our other reading for the morning, Jesus' parable about the Incompetent Manager. The employer gets wind that his manager is not looking our for his affairs properly. So his summons the man and gives him the ultimatum of providing an accounting of his work.
Well, the man is beside himself because he hasn't done a good job. In his panic he hits upon the idea of reducing the many outstanding obligations by working a deal with his employers' debtors. He promises them a full write off of their bills if they pay now at a figure less than what they really owe. So they simply change the records and the money starts to flow in. All the bills are marked "paid in full." Ancient creative accounting.
We would expect the rich man to condemn his manager even more strongly when he's made aware what's going on; instead, though, he commends the man. And that's the story Jesus told.
We hear it and say, "Wait a minute. That's not right. It must be the wrong ending. Why would the man be praised for his dishonesty?"
Not the guys at Freedom Center, however. That's how they differ from you and me. They thought it was pretty smart of the manager. They knew it was always better to get away with something than to be honest and pay the consequences. This is actually closer to the understanding that Jesus wanted to convey in telling the story. Remember, those who were the most drawn to Jesus were not the cream of society but those who were considered its outcasts.
The teaching has this added conclusion: "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."
The story actually has less to do with honesty than being able to size up a situation and then taking the appropriate action. In Jesus' experience it was the religious people and especially their leaders, the "children of light," who couldn't see the obvious before them and act on it. Instead, it was the "children of this age"—the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised, the powerless—who were the ones who understood Jesus' message and who were ready to respond.
To change their lives we had to help these young men understand that they must change themselves. They had to see their reality for what it was, and then decide if they wanted to do something about it. No one could do it for them. They could either be shrewd about the future or pay the consequences. And the decision needed to come today, and not tomorrow. Thank goodness many of the fellows we had in our care were able to step up to the challenge before them.
Jamal, Dwayne, and Little Joe were but three of the "delinquents" I remember there who began to work through their addiction with the help of that "Higher Power," for God promises to meet us where we are and to take us to what we can become. We saw changes each day in these young men which would help give them a better chance in life built on a whole new direction. Our successes, unfortunately, didn't include everybody.
So what did these three teach me? They showed me there's hope even in the worst of situations, as long as you don't forget where your true strength lies. Life may be unfair, but the person who deals most successfully with his or her reality is the one who sees it for what it is, who determines the best opportunity available, and who decides to make the most of it—relying on God.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church